Sunday, 11 March 2012

In search of the pyramid of my dreams

An October evening, my flight hovers over Cairo, preparing to land. It’s just 5 pm but the sun’s already set. I crane my neck trying to get a glimpse of the pyramids, but, without success. I was to see them weeks later, when I returned to Cairo at the end of my 3-week journey along the Nile; today, I fly on to South Egypt. I’d saved the best for last: Cairo’s most famous resident, the Sphinx, flanked by the Giza pyramids. Or, so I thought.

The Giza pyramids

The vast brown desert with miles & miles of nothing-ness.
The wind blows wisps of sand around, creating swooshing sounds.
A gentle storm brews & you hold on tight to your camel; you should be approaching the pyramids any minute now.
As you go over a dune, lo-behold! Amidst the swirling sand, you see silhouettes of the three pyramids. Drawing your veil tightly across your face, you race your camel towards these marvels & stop in your tracks as you come close.
You are tongue-tied. You let the enormity of the structures sink in.
There’s not a sound around, except for the swooshing sand; probably carrying messages from deep within these magnificent tombs.
You feel like you’ve been transported to 5000 years ago.

A vast, paved parking lot with miles & miles of vehicles.
Plastic wrappers & paper stubs flying around you.
Taxis honk as people dart across the narrow street & you hold on tight to your seat; you should be approaching the pyramids any minute now.
As you near a Pizza Hut, lo-behold! You can see the entrance & the mad rush of people walking in.
Drawing your bag closer to your chest, you jostle your way towards these marvels & stop in your tracks as you come close.
You are tongue-tied. You let the enormity of the structures sink in.

You also let these facts sink in: The pyramids are smack in the centre of bustling Cairo. There’re three buses obstructing your view of the pyramids. Somebody’s trying to sell you souvenirs & offer you camel rides. The area around the pyramid is fenced (of course, with good intent; to prevent vandalism). You struggle to see all the three pyramids together. There’s a lot of noise around, including a very loud one in my brain: Crash! Boom! Bang! That is the destruction of my fantasies & my rose-tinted glasses.

The paragraph about the desert was how I always imagined the pyramids to be. It was also what was shown on television & in movies, which I’d hungrily lapped up for years. Unfortunately, it does not exist. It takes a lot of concentration & effort on my part to shut all this out, to try & feel like I’ve been transported to 5000 years ago. I don’t succeed; I remain where I am.

The Great Pyramid - of Pharaoh Khufu

Evolution of the pyramids

Over the next few days, I explore other pyramids. The Stepped pyramid at Saqqara is the first pyramid to be built, by chief architect Imhotep, for Pharaoh Zoser. Not satisfied with mastabas (flat-roofed, rectangular structures that marked burial sites) that were usually built atop tombs, Imhotep designed & built the Stepped pyramid using hewn stone. Encased in fine, white limestone, this pyramid rose to a height of 60 metres. Soon, Stepped pyramids became popular in Egypt.

Around 2600 BC, Pharaoh Sneferu wanted to build a ‘true pyramid’; one that wasn’t stepped. He began constructing the Bent pyramid, the next prototype in the pyramid experiment. It stands in the middle of a military zone & can’t be visited. Construction began at an angle of 53 degrees. Midway along the construction, Sneferu’s architects realised that the pyramid was unstable due to the steep angle. Abruptly, they changed the angle to 43 degrees & completed the pyramid, with a final height of just over 100 metres. I look through my binoculars at this testament to the architects’ perseverance. Instead of abandoning the project, they’d now learnt how to construct the perfect pyramid. Soon after, Sneferu commissioned the Red pyramid.

The Red pyramid, constructed at the now tried & tested angle of 43 degrees, was the first true pyramid to be successfully built. Sneferu was buried there. 104 metres tall, it is located at Dahshur, outside Cairo city. Very few people visit this beautiful & well-preserved pyramid, as it is overshadowed by the famous Giza pyramids. It works out to my advantage; a pyramid sans crowds, where you can climb down to the inner chamber without the snaking queues at Giza. With barely concealed excitement, I huff & puff my way up the extremely steep stone steps to the entrance, which is almost mid-way up the pyramid. Next, I bend over double & scrape my way downwards through a long, sloping, narrow passageway. And then, what I see knocks the wind out of me: I’m in the central chamber with a beautifully corbelled, 12 metres high ceiling.  I also walk down to the next chamber, with an even higher ceiling. With barely any ventilation for about 30 minutes now, I am suddenly acutely conscious of the sulphurous smell. I work my way back up & out. Sunshine & a hot breeze greet me as I exit, but they’re a welcome change from the claustrophobia. I am jubilant; this feels like the pyramid of my dreams.

The Red Pyramid, with steps leading to its entrance

The Giza pyramids are where all the practice bore fruit. The angle, the height, the proportion; everything is just perfect. And, the fact that they’re standing millennia later is a tribute to the architects’ skills. The great pyramid of Khufu (Cheops) is the tallest. Khufu, Sneferu’s son, built himself a wonder that was 146 metres high; almost 40 metres taller than his father’s Red pyramid. Over centuries, wind erosion is said to have reduced its height by almost 9 metres; it’s imposing, nonetheless. The two other smaller pyramids belong to Khafre (Chephren) & Menkaure.

The pyramid complex, seen from the main road

Egyptian burial rituals involved burying ornaments & other valuables alongside the mummy. The massive pyramid was a dead give-away of the location of the valuables. Attracted by this wealth, thieves plundered & looted all tombs within pyramids. The next generation of pharaohs, wiser from seeing their forefathers’ tombs ransacked, started hiding their tombs underground. Thus were born the fabulously painted underground tombs at the Valley of the Kings in Luxor (Thebes), by then, the new capital of Egypt. King Tutankhamun’s treasures survived & awed us only because they were buried in his secret underground tomb. But, that’s another story. As for the pyramids, they were never built again. The pharaohs realised their folly; but if all follies led to such magnificence, would we mind them so much? 

Revisiting Giza

The location of the Sphinx & the pyramids may have let me down, but, I don’t think I can leave Cairo without giving them a second chance. Perhaps, my description of the desert would have rung true millennia ago; the pharaohs could never have foreseen a city developing around the pyramids. The day before I leave Egypt, I’m back in the queue at Giza. On my earlier visit, I’d undertaken the difficult & extremely crowded trek into Khufu’s pyramid. This pyramid has a constant stream of visitors & to prevent more damage to the structure, visitors are advised not to spend too much time within. Today, I have only one agenda in mind. Refusing to give up until I find the pyramid of my dreams, I endure a long walk under the harsh sun, till I am well beyond the third pyramid. The view from here brings a smile back to my face. Most people, though, are too rushed to spend time & energy walking to this area. Now, un-hindered by noise or crowds, I can appreciate these structures at leisure. I pronounce that the pyramids deserve every bit of the attention they get. We, for all our modern tools & technology, still cannot ape the work done in that age; neither in precision nor in grandeur or scale.

Seated in the hot mid-day sun, I draw my scarf across my face; like a veil to shield me from the heat.
There’s neither a person in sight, nor a bus; all I can see is swathes of brown desert.
A gentle breeze blows, occasionally spraying me with the hot sand.
It’s silent, except for the swooshing sounds of the sand in the breeze.
A lone camel saunters past.
I sit on rocks, my bare toes drawing patterns in the sand, bustling Cairo far from my mind.
Slowly, the sand turns cooler & the pyramids start becoming silhouettes in the fading evening light.
This is as close as it can be, to my dream. I relish it.

Tips & facts:

The Sphinx is likely to have been modelled on Pharaoh Khafre. The nose was said to be cut off sometime before the 15th century. The Pharaoh’s beard too has fallen off the sculpture. The Sphinx is smaller than I’d imagined it to be. Most of the Sphinx’s facial features seem to have been remarkably well preserved until the early 19th century, based on sketches from the time. Currently, it’s been a struggle to preserve this monolith as it is undergoing rapid deterioration.

While at the pyramids, definitely visit the Solar Barque museum. It has a separate entry ticket but is absolutely worth it. Pharaoh Khufu’s Solar Barque (boat) is humungous & painstakingly restored. It is said to have been used to carry the body of the dead pharaoh across the Nile.

See the Sound & Light show at the pyramids. Though the lighting was a little over-the-top for my liking, I enjoyed being able to see the pyramids & the Sphinx at night; free from crowds, vehicles or touts. I enjoyed the narration & the atmosphere. The show is available in multiple languages; ensure you check about this before you go.

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